- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

For those of us who wish the Bush administration well, its efforts to handle the Beijing-Pyongyang crisis are becoming too painful to watch. A bit of history is in order:
According to published reports, in the late spring of 1993, there was an upsurge in illicit Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD] shipments by the People's Republic of China, and Congress was pressing the young Clinton administration to deal with the problem. By midsummer, the administration had intelligence that a Chinese ship, the Yin He was on its way to deliver WMD chemicals to a terrorist state. Although congressional staff specifically warned them that something didn't smell right [Beijing was vigorously denying all], they halted the ship and searched it. There was no contraband, the administration was humiliated worldwide and they never stopped another Chinese ship for the next 7 years. If, as many of us suspect, the Chinese dropped tainted intelligence on the Clinton administration, the operation was spectacularly successful.
The signs strongly suggest that Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was similarly victimized during his trip to North Korea last fall. When he presented his evidence of Pyongyang's secret nuclear project, he evidently expected North Koreans to issue the usual denial. Instead, they responded along the lines of "Yeah, and what are you going to do about it?" Not much and everyone in Asia knows it. So we now have the North Koreans issuing daily threats of a "nuclear crisis" and the U.S. Ambassador to Japan is warning that the North Koreans may fly another rocket across the Pacific. Just on Wednesday, CIA Director George Tenet revealed that North Korean rockets can reach the American West Coast.
The administration has responded by appealing to Beijing for help on North Korea and issuing peeved statements to the press when Chinese actions only make the matter worse. They would do a lot better if they turned their thinking 180 degrees: China is the problem, not the solution, to the North Korea mess and Mr. Kelly was probably sandbagged on orders from Beijing.
Does Beijing know about North Korea's WMD activities? Suppose Mexico had a similar history to Korea cut at the 42nd Parallel with a communist north and a free south. If the North Mexico regime had dragged the U.S. into a war that resulted in a million American casualties, as North Korea did with China, it seems likely the U.S. would keep a close eye on what was going on down there.
If Beijing knows, does that mean it approves of what North Korea is doing? Fifteen years or so ago, North Korea had a strong leader who could play China off against the Soviet Union. Now, the Great Leader is dead, as is the Soviet Union. North Korea remains on life support and the plug could be pulled at any time by China. If they disapproved of North Korea's WMD activities, they could end them with a telephone call.
If Beijing knows and approves, does this mean they are participating in North Korea's WMD activities? First, we know that the Pakistani C-130 cargo plane involved in the nuclear weapons for missiles swap with North Korea is refueled twice in China one going out and once on the return. Second, only China makes the critical pieces [ring magnets] for the nuclear enrichment program and certain vital parts for the long-range missile program.
If Beijing knows, approves and is participating in North Korea's WMD activities, is it going to want them to continue or will it be willing to help end them at our request? Even if one does not accept the idea that Beijing is acting specifically to inflict a political defeat on the United States, there is the undoubted money issue.
In his memoirs, former Secretary of State James Baker says he knew he would not be able to stop Chinese missile sales to Pakistan because high-ranking officials and their families made money on the deals. The same officials Mr. Baker knew then are still in place now. Bottom Line: Beijing's political and military elite, and their families, receive a cut of these WMD joint ventures with terrorist states.
Therefore, the idea that Beijing shares our desire for a nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula is nothing more than a dangerous self-delusion, however well-intended. In the same way that Beijing uses Pakistan as its proxy to attack Delhi, they are using Pyongyang to inflict a political defeat on the United States and its North Asian allies.
The road to Pyongyang does indeed lead through Beijing, but it's in unfriendly hands. Unless the administration recognizes this, it is doomed to share the failure of the Clinton administration. Success will require more hard realism and less wishful thinking.

William C. Triplett II is a defense writer in Washington.

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